VERIFY: Dan Patrick lied about how “dangerous” Austin is

Without citing valid evidence, PolitiFact accused Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of lying about crime in Austin. Though it is unclear if a statement by Patrick about crime in Austin is true or not, PolitiFact sourced data from the wrong time period, and then applied a discredited analytical methodology, to come to the conclusion Patrick lied.

BACKGROUND: During an October 28, 2020 appearance in Houston, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick described Austin as “a great city, now one of the most dangerous cities in America and definitely in Texas.”

THE CLAIM: PolitiFact’s Brandon Mulder analyzed Dan Patrick’s comment and determined that Patrick had lied, writing that he rated “this claim Pants on Fire,” a reference to the children’s poem Liar Liar Pants on Fire.  According to Mulder’s evaluation: “In describing Austin as a ‘disaster,’ Patrick said that the city is ‘now one of the most dangerous cities in America and definitely in Texas.’ Among the 30 largest cities in the U.S., Austin’s violent crime rate ranks 28th. And among the 25 largest cities in Texas, Austin ranks 13th.”

According to Mulder, he sourced the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) database — using statistics gathered between the time period January 2019 to December 2019 — to draw these conclusions.

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INVESTIGATION: A close review of PolitiFact’s analysis shows it to be faulty on multiple levels. Statistics are a potent proof point, but are limited by the capacity and capability of those analyzing the data. Two errors in PolitiFact’s superficial and perfunctory analysis become immediately apparent.

First, is PolitiFact’s lexical understanding of Patrick’s use of the word “now.”  Lexico, a collaboration between and Oxford University, defines “now” to mean “at the present time or moment.” While it’s probably not the case that Patrick was referring, specifically, to October 28 — the date he made his comments — it’s equally unlikely he was referring to an indeterminate time period 18 months ago when he said Austin is “now one of the most dangerous cities in America.” Patrick’s comments were delivered within the context of a campaign to defund the Austin police department, which resulted in a $20 million reduction in budget in August 2020. An informed reading of Patrick’s comment, therefore, would lead a reasonable person to believe “now” meant August 2020 to October 2020 (the date at which defunding occurred to the date of Patrick’s remarks), and not January 2019 to December 2019 (the time period PolitiFact used for its analysis).

Second, in its analysis, PolitiFact extensively cited what it calls “city rankings,” writing that “when ranking Austin’s violent crime rates to that of other large U.S. cities, Austin comes nowhere near the top of the list.” Indeed, PolitiFact invokes the word rankings seven times in its short article, repeatedly describing Austin’s place in what it breathlessly and confidently describes as “city rankings.” However, the FBI, from which PolitiFact sourced its  data, provides extensive warnings about the validity of trying to rank cities:

Data users should not rank locales because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place. UCR statistics include only jurisdictional population figures along with reported crime, clearance, or arrest data. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale.

The FBI goes on to list a variety of factors known to impact the way individuals and societies experience crime, including, population density, climate, transportation systems, and crime reporting practices. In other words, as a complex, sociological phenomenon, municipal crime patterns cannot simply be ranked and scored like game show finalists to produce lists of “most dangerous” and “least dangerous” places, as PolitiFact attempted.

RULING: Dan Patrick, who resides in Austin, cited personal experience and anecdotes to support his claim that Austin is “now one of the most dangerous cities in America.” While the Austin Police Department’s own crime reporting statistics show a slight increase in property crime in September 2020, a comparison of rates to other cities is not available. And, while Patrick’s claim seems incredible, whether or not it is false is unprovable with data currently available.

The political economy of journalism demands a steady cadence of fact-checks and modern reporters are asked to fact-check statements that are  essentially uncheckable. On these occasions, objective analysis is replaced by subjective argument. Both are valid endeavors, but when subjective argument masquerades as objective analysis, it must be confronted.

In making the objective determination that Patrick lied, PolitiFact cited data from January 2019 to December 2019, even though Patrick was referring to the time period August 2020 to October 2020. It also relied on “city rankings” of crime statistics, an invalid comparative tool discredited by the very agency — the FBI — PolitiFact relied upon for its data. PolitiFact’s assertion that Dan Patrick lied about the “danger” in Austin is as much absent valid quantitative support as the very claim it was attempting to fact-check. It is, therefore, FALSE.

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